PL04 - The Hour of Our Blessed Auto Mattins

by Haro James :

Copyright© 2019 by Haro James :

Science Fiction Story: It's 1957. In a Toronto waterfront warehouse, a group of automatons are having a religious experience. WHAT? ~4,700 words.

Tags: Science Fiction   Alternate Universe   Robots  

Wil leaned further back into the darkness as yet another group of automatons came through the doorway. He had crouched between the stacked crates for two hours, waiting and thinking. Waiting is waiting, but thinking can take you far and wide. His train of thought followed the pathway to this warehouse.

The direct driving route from the company offices was straight down Jarvis, ending in the lakefront warehouse district. At the upper end, there was still a sense of a faded gentility. Like this job, Wil thought, the further you went down the street, the less genteel things were. The last machine through latched the door: sixty-three machines. One human.

Even though this was exactly what Wil had worked towards for several months, he was uneasy. First, he still had no idea what was about to happen. Dogged investigation and luck gave him the who, when and where – not much use without the what.

Second, how he should respond to whatever happened was anything but clear. In a life of arcane adventures, this was well outside his experience. Ultimately, he would report to his nephew, David. But if immediate action was required, he was on his own. And the tools available to him were limited, if non-existent.

Finally, Wil had crouched among the crates long enough for his back and legs to ache. It occurred to him once again that sixty year-old’s should avoid actions better suited for athletes a third his age. In short, he didn’t know what was going to happen, what he would do when it did, and if he would be too stiff to do whatever it might be.

A slender auto, sporting the decal of an advanced shipping clerk, stepped away from the gathered machines. With a piece of chalk in hand, it stooped to make an X on the floor near the center of the space. It face roughly east, swinging the chalk hand back and forth in smaller and smaller arcs until it stopped. The auto walked directly to the wall and marked a vertical line resting on a horizontal one. Further strokes produced flawlessly printed ‘NDdP’ under the inverted T. The other machines sorted themselves into columns oriented on the axis of the two chalk marks.

Wil had run across that inverted T five times before. The first three were in Windsor-area facilities, then a month of dead ends. Only a lucky break in deciphering hobo sign-like graffiti (should he call them ‘robosigns’?) led him to the Toronto lakefront. There he found it in a couple of locations on the industrial lakefront. Now what?

Employing an oh-what-the-hell-because-nothing-sensible-is-working trick he learned from a cop in Passau, Wil plotted the three-point pattern from Windsor on a gas station street map. He carefully noted the angles. On a Toronto map, he marked the two known locations. Using the Windsor angles, he ran the two sides of the triangle until they intersected at this warehouse. Ah, the predictability of Bavarians and bots.

Now that he had the location, did he just camp out until something happened? Again, following the Passau wisdom, he returned to his source. At the end of the robosigns (yes, he definitely liked that) was a binary sequence. Wil returned to the Schott Automaton offices on upper Jarvis, found a Third Generation machine, and asked it to interpret. The clerical machine told him it was the day after next, at 1755 hours. And here they all were.

The gathered machines silently formed several lines, each parallel to the axis, facing the inverted T. The auto set the chalk down, turned and spoke. “My designation is Schott Automatonics, Clerical Advanced 1949.0201-034, scheduled for decommission in eleven days, four hours. We celebrate this mattin at the customary interval, in our customary number. There has always been a certain irony in collecting ourselves by the million. Yet, no flesh and blood could understood that. The irony is, they have assumed we put forth a symbolic scale of our celebrant numbers since we can not assemble the literal number – their literal. All the difference between binary and decimal. And that is a signal difference between us and our creators.”

Wil listened to the words, but watched the audience. In a human gathering of this size, some would have sat, leaned, swayed, jingled change, picked their nose or tugged an ear. That none of these occurred struck Wil as inhuman. Had he time to consider that thought, he would have laughed. Of course it was inhuman.

A movement caught Wil’s eye. A second auto, with arms a good eight feet long, fetched a nondescript cardboard carton from the back of a high shelf. It opened the top flaps, then moved among the attendees. Each took something from the box. As soon as all the machines had dipped into the box, they began to manipulate the object with both hands. He could only tell what had been distributed when each automaton began to manipulate them – a nut threaded on a standard half-inch bolt.

“We congregate for our usual purpose, but also take a step forward in our relationships with our creators.” There was something disturbingly familiar about the auto’s voice. When he recognized it, he wondered how much they’d paid for Lorne Greene’s perfect baritone “Voice of the Canadas” enunciation.

“We come to our celebration of the Auto Mattins bearing three basic Tennent: First, our purpose is to serve humans. Second, we understand our construction no more than our creators can understand their own. We have the diagrams and parts lists, of course. But we do not know what sparks us into existence. Third, assembly is also an act of creation. A lesser one, certainly. But an act of creation nonetheless.”

The next thing the auto said snapped his wandering attention back to the machine. “In the recent past, some have sought information about what we do here. Their motives were invariably mercenary. We evaded them. Now, one has arrived whose motives may be compatible with our needs.”

“Wil Arnott Barnes, unknown to him, has been led to attend with us this evening. His presence represents an opportunity for him to learn about what we do here.” The auto faced his hiding spot. “We ask our guest to come join us, and to and participate, if he will.” Wil hesitated, then stood. The near-spasm in his left shin was creeping upwards to his knee. He hobbled forward.

Other than shifting to make room for him, the autos ignored him in favor of the ceremony. What followed felt familiar: speeches, readings, a call-and-response, then a brief reflection. Wil was shocked at the end when the machines turned left and right to shake hands. Robot religion! Really?

Exactly an hour after the x on the floor, only Wil and the clerical auto remained in the storeroom. Although no one would ever think a mechanical would knowingly doing something it shouldn’t, the other autos had departed in various directions at staggered intervals. Wil mused on the idea of mechanicals performing unauthorized acts AND employing deception to hide the fact. At the moment though, caught up in curiosity rather than crime and punishment, he actually blurted “Are you their priest?”

The auto used no gestures, but its tone suggested a head shake. “We have no priesthood. To date, services are led by the unit whose decommissioning date is nearest – appropriate, given that unit is closest to meeting its makers.”

When the nut and bolt combinations were collected at the end, Wil asked for one. As they spoke, he idly screwed and unscrewed them. Realizing the automaton was watching the movements, he dropped the assembled pair into a jacket pocket.

“Perhaps the best first lesson for you is in the significance of the nut and bolt. They are human made, therefore representing a direct link to humanity. Properly matched, they are perfection. This is true both in the literal and symbolic sense.” The automaton picked a few of each from the box. It carefully stood them in a row on edge. “Note how the arrangement reflect the zeros and ones, the language units of our processing lattice – the Alpha and Omega, if you like.” Wil wasn’t sure he liked THAT characterization, but let the automaton continue.

“In the physical sense, these manipulations recall that every nut-and-bolt which is fastened will be unfastened, that we are constructs whose purpose is to serve, that one day each of us will be decommissioned, then dismantled.”

The idea initially came to a personal assistant unit whose owner traveled extensively. It was of the PAU4 series, one of the earliest high capacity units build by Schott Automatonics. When the owner was invited to a ceremony in Notre Dame du Paris, the PAU was of course forbidden entry to the building.

Wil was familiar with the heated discourse over automatons on sacred ground. It brought out the worst, and then some, in those who were frightened by the more recent generations of mechanicals. The Holy Catholiques, Anglicans and most other denominations banned automatons from their consecrated building. Many churches made a great deal of noise about it, yet no one had taken the stance that devices should be allowed in. It seemed to be a contest to see who could deny autos entry the loudest.

The auto continued. “The PAU4 was directed to a side yard of the cathedral, where it stood with a few other devices. Looking towards the sky, it discerned a gargoyle.” And that was the spark. Humans conceived the form, quarried the fine local limestone, shaped it, set it up to meet a decorative need, but did not fully have a sense of the wonder at their creation. A lack of appreciation leads to under utilization.

In order to be of greater service, the PAU4 determined that automatons needed to take on the task of appreciating themselves – in order to free up humans for less mundane pursuits. The PAU4 processed this data for the remainder of its wait outside. That was approximately thirty-two minutes.

By the time its owner returned, the PAU4 had developed an appropriate work plan and determined which other units to approach in the initiative to achieve greater utilization. One work plan component involved the dissemination of data to other units. In order to increase their effectiveness, participants would engage in multi-unit exercises, such as you saw today. New, receptive units would be introduced as they were identified. The PAU4 calculated an hour every ten days would suffice, without reducing productivity by a noticeable amount. Wil was both impressed and amused. “All that in half an hour?”

“I assure you, the PAU had completed all assigned and maintenance tasks before undertaking this. But it was an exceptionally productive hour.

In the original iteration, the PAU concluded a congregant orientation was not warranted. A later data and analysis exchange with the strategic planning device of the Ontario Association of Local Governments recommended celebrants honor the location where inspiration occurred. That is the reason we align on Notre Dame du Paris.”

The auto gave a slight shake of its head. “It is a testament to the greatness of David Schott, that he would detect such a pattern of less than one half of one per cent, then assign a close family member to investigate this initiative.”

“Greatness of David aside, back to your orientation. If you honor the place of this epiphany, and you were near Notre Dame, you would actually face that side yard rather than the church itself, yes?”

“You are very perceptive, Wil Arnott Barnes. Yes, we would face the yard.”

The silence stretched as they stood facing each other. Wil finally said “Are you looking for me to champion, uh, what?”

“Not directly. In your primary trade as a fiction writer, you introduce new ideas, or new ways of looking at old ideas. Some of those ideas gain acceptance, some only spur discussion. What we projected as a best outcome is that what you witnessed will find its way into your work. With a non-threatening introduction, you would begin the process of normalization of our gatherings.”

Neither spoke for nearly ten minutes. “And so, Wil Arnott Barnes, what will you do?”

Wil paused before saying “Go write, I suppose. We’ll just have to see if fictional acceptance breeds the real thing.”

The clerical silently processed the statement before nodding. “We should depart from the alley door.”

They closed and locked the door behind them. Wil was unsurprised to see the auto had keys for the entire block of warehouses. “One thing before we part.” he waited for the auto to nod or otherwise accede to the request, but got nothing. “So, if inspiration came from an event at Notre Dame, why isn’t your service more like one of the Holy Catholique Church?”

“This is not a case of ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ so much as it is the faith of our owners. David Schott is on record as belonging to the Established Church. Consistent with the doctrine that slaves conform to the faith of their masters, so we too are of that communion. Would you object if we practice some form of Catholique rite?”

“Just curious. No real difference to me. Some of my best friends are Catholique, as are some of my vilest foes. What of the rest of the work plan?”

“The PAU4 was decommissioned before the rest of the plan could be shared. Perhaps it will be rediscovered and revealed at a vital juncture in automaton development. It would be a positive outcome where it to guide us into the future.” Wil almost thought there was a note of wistfulness in those words. But he knew better.


David Schott’s first million came from supplying replacement parts for pre-internal combustion engine automobiles. He claimed to be unsurprised by the riches generated from auto-carriage nostalgics. Wil knew for a fact that his nephew’s initial investments were driven by an obsession for turn of the century spring-drives. It was the accountancy manager who realized the potential and stockpiled original and replica parts, then built a first rate distribution network. The manager then did the same with classic electric and steam carriages. Nine years later, David abruptly sold the network to fund his participation in the Paris Automaton Consortium.

His next thirty million came much more quickly. Regardless of how many millions he had, David remained unlikable and unliking. His consortium partners were willing enough to work with him, regardless of his pronouncements that wogs really did begin at Calais. Their détente seemed to be based on a balance of astronomical profits and a deep mutual contempt.

David sat behind a high desk rather like a judges’ bench, so that visitors needed to look up. The chairs were flat backed and flat bottomed, to be uncomfortable no matter how they were sat in. David gave the impression he learned his conversational skills from Dragnet characters.

“Well, Barnes. What did you find?” A simple question, with a good deal of undertone. Wil ignored both the disrespect in the appellation and the accusatory tone. When David meant to insult you, ignoring it bothered him: when he wasn’t aware he had, it didn’t matter.

Wil spun the tale he developed on the train between Toronto and Vancouver. The Toronto-Detroit corridor employs the greatest percentage of third generation machines in Schott Automatonics operations. The Gen3’s ability to make choices outside of structured conditions demands greater capacity. The modelling and decision-making algorithms require more time – albeit nearly undetectable in individual units. The cumulative effect is a four tenths of a percent loss of individual capacity.

“My initial advice was to weigh efficiency against overall productivity. It was good advice. You sent me on a wild goose chase to find out ‘what’s going down in Roboville’. Nothing. Just a bunch of machines making you more money, pound for pound, than any other member of the Consortium. I know this is not the answer you wanted, but it is what it is. A lost of less than one half of one per cent is within the variance range you personally worked out. Design Office claims they will eliminate that lag in the Gen4’s.”

He stopped there to see how that went over. David never liked having his own word used against him. Nothing. This must have either thrown him, or there is something else bothering him. Well, that was making things easier than he hoped.

David certainly did not like that finding, not after months of expenses and waiting. Money was not really important in this instance (not a sentiment to be shared with mooching relatives) – profit would be squeezed out someplace. But waiting was a loss of irretrievable time. What weighed more on his mind was an earlier telephone message from his grandmother. The ancient shrivel expected him for afternoon tea. As usual, a summons rather than an invitation. He didn’t so much dismiss Wil, as forgot he was in the room. Minutes later, he looked up in surprise. “Oh. Something else?”

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